The traditional portrait of the average college student as an 18 to 22 year-old attending classes on their college campus is fast being replaced by a radically different student population. When it comes to defining the new normal in student demographics, the collective term is ‘nontraditional student,’ describing learners who might be juggling higher education with a full or part-time job, or those looking to retrain between careers, pick up their education after active service in the military, or those with responsibilities of managing children or other dependents.
Increasingly, nontraditional students may even graduate without ever having set foot on their college campus. Research from the Learning House and Aslanian Market Research reveals that in 2014, nearly 3.4 million college students — representing nearly 17 percent of all college students — participated in online learning programs, predicting a growth that’s estimated to include a quarter of all college enrollments by 2020. Catering to this new body of students, who are anything but homogenous, is just the latest challenge college administrators and admissions staff must tackle to ensure the success of their institutions. But with any challenge comes, of course, opportunity and the chance for colleges to increase the reach and appeal of their campus.
Overwhelmingly, this new generation of disparate college students requires close communication with their school campus, and that communication can’t start too soon according to Lisa Malat, Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer for Barnes & Noble College. “The most important way colleges can serve these students is to develop an initial connection by educating them about what you offer — then, do it often,” she said in a recent interview with The College Store Magazine.
A key part of that outreach can come from the campus bookstore, and Malat points out that Barnes & Noble College managed bookstores reach out to freshmen as soon as they receive their acceptance letters, and that by developing targeted and relevant messaging early, schools can help build loyalty and trust with the nontraditional student segment who may feel outside of the general college population. In a recent Barnes & Noble College survey, 48 percent of students polled said they took some kind of online orientation upon enrollment, and Malat sees these kinds of opportunities for bookstores to closely collaborate with their campus as a way to offer greater outreach potential.
Larry Gal, who manages the campus bookstore at Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) would be the first to agree. “There’s a significant opportunity within Registration Integration, for example, in that as soon as a student registers for classes, they will be connected to the bookstore website and see all of the different ways we can support their learning material options,” he says. Gal is also exploring other opportunities, such as utilizing the LMS as a way of connecting with distance learning students. The SCSU Bookstore currently generates 30 percent of its revenue from its web business, and Gal sees that only expanding as the school extends their courses to appeal to nontraditional students, “We can ship any kind of product to you, whether that’s a textbook or an access code — and that convenience can be important for someone who may come on campus only once or twice a month,” he explains.
Gal also believes this kind of support is crucial to help counter the kind of course attrition that can often plague distance learning programs. “While the university is expanding, and we’re seeing great enrollments for these kinds of programs, we have experienced some dipping in the sophomore year,” he says. “One way to help these students more effectively manage and stay with their courses is to make the whole process more convenient for them — including easily obtaining their course materials.”
Nontraditional students are increasingly going to represent the future for traditional brick-and-mortar colleges, yet they bring with them some particular challenges. For example, they may not be able to regularly attend lectures or conform to scheduled lesson hours — and the simple logistics of trying to find campus parking or a place to study can sometimes be problematic.
To gain a better understanding of the experiences and needs of this unique demographic, this fall, Barnes & Noble College will be releasing its nontraditional student report, which will include research findings on student barriers to success, understanding expectations, identifying services and assistance needed to ensure success, and understanding priorities and differences between different types of nontraditional students. “As student demographics continue to shift, we felt it was critical to gain a better understanding of this particular student population,” said Malat. “These findings will help define and compare educational paths between traditional and nontraditional students, and will also be helpful to college and university administrators, and the higher education industry to improve success for nontraditional students.”
Though the new student body might be different than our conventional idea of the typical college student, they are united in their desire for a sense of connection with their campus and the bookstore is increasingly becoming a focal point for that connection. “This is a different customer base than the traditional student on campus,” Malat maintained in The College Store Magazine article. “Do whatever you can to develop messages and programs that resonate with your students now,” she said, “Stay relevant and connect with students in a personal way based on their own journey.”